morning Martha sits in the kitchen, but not huddled in her usual place in the corner, staring at the red flowers in the wallpaper. She is crouched in the alcove by the bay window, her arms clasped around her knees, her head tilted up slightly. Her eyes are closed. The window overlooks most of the meadow where there are real red flowers, Blazing Stars and Bee Balm. She is trying to absorb the sun's golden rays through the window. I can sense the heat on her face. I take this as a good sign.
She holds a half-eaten banana in her hands between her kneecaps; the spotted yellow-black peels hanging down as if the banana is a bouquet. I take this as a second good sign. Bananas contain potassium, I say to her. I expect her to answer me and I am again surprised that she doesn't. She turns and looks right through me, as if someone was unexpectedly at the kitchen door. I turn. No one is there. I inhale slowly and hold it. A slight breeze stirs outside. The hanging chimes on the back porch ring and I remember our childhood when we attended daily Mass. The breeze blows again and the chimes resonate. I return to reality and am no longer surprised. I am no longer concerned. I am now worried. Martha hasn't spoken in three days.
We did not have a fight this time. In fact it has been almost three months since we had a fight, and that one was minor, a discussion really, about who forgot to buy the lamb chops for dinner. We ordered pizza and laughed our way through the slices. Martha eats formally using a knife and fork, and dabbing her fingers on a napkin. I use my hands and bend the slice in two, letting the grease run on my fingers and then licking them. Lately, we have been very close, like we have returned to each other after a long journey. When we fought before she would at least grunt at me, and talk to people on the phone. It has now been over three months since our last fight if you count the four days she hasn't talked at all.
I fix coffee in the automatic drip percolator. She gave it to me on my last birthday. I asked her to buy the best but she said the best was too expensive and she couldn't afford it. So she got me this one. I understand about her money. I did not give her a present. I gave her money. That's what she said she wanted. That's what I gave her. I ask her if she wants coffee. She doesn't answer. My sense of shock is wearing down. My desperation is increasing. I drink more coffee than I should. I sleep less than I should. Martha has not spoken in five days.
I feel a bit reassured because our doctor says it is a mystery to him. I tell the doctor it is a mystery to me. The doctor and I agree about mysteries. We do not understand them. The doctor asks me if she fell or hit her head. I say no. When did it happen? he asks. A week tomorrow I say, on Friday evening. I came home just before five. She was sitting at the kitchen table with her head between her knees. I asked her if she was sick. She didn't answer. I asked her if she forgot to take the hamburger out of the freezer. Sometimes she forgets the simple things. Every Friday evening we make Sloppy Joes like we did when we were kids. We have hundreds of recipes for Sloppy Joes, some from as far back as our father who said he did not care about eating meat on Friday. I ask the doctor if there is any kind of medicine. He says no. I ask him how long it will last. He hesitates and then suggests she will come out of it in a couple of days. I tell him a couple of days is too long. Martha has not spoken for six days.
Martha is sitting in the living room. Her face is quite close to the television. She has turned it on but there is only a black screen. The window is open and the curtains are waving. There is an early morning breeze. She is shivering. I slide her favorite blanket around her shoulders, the one she crocheted, and kiss the top of her head. I think she does not feel it. She is watching the television intently, holding her hand to her mouth as if she is about to gasp at something awful happening on the show, but it is still a blank screen. I see in the upper right-hand corner of the screen it is channel sixty-six. I forgot to change the channels back last night before I went to bed in my room. I usually switch to channel three or four where there is news in the morning.
I feel depressed now. Channel sixty-six is showing black, although late at night, sometimes into the early morning, the preachers are on that channel healing people. Most are lame with crutches and they hang the crutches over the stage. What about mutes? What can you hang? Maybe I will bring Martha to the show on channel sixty-six but there really aren't any miracles any more. Even though her hand is at her mouth I do not think she will gasp. I think she will continue to be silent. I want to gasp, or better, to scream. I want her to gasp and scream. It has been a week. I have fish for dinner instead of Sloppy Joes. What would our father think? I wonder if he is in heaven even though he ate Sloppy Joes on Fridays. Martha has not spoken for seven days now.
I tell the doctor she continues to be silent. I think he expects me to say she has spoken and then the problem will be gone. He asks me what she eats. I tell him simple foods: apples, oranges, bananas, finger food. She likes to drink water and she holds it in her mouth for several seconds before she swallows. She picks at the grapes. She holds one in her hand and studies it, rolling it between her fingers. She puts it on her tongue and brings it into her mouth. I do not see her chew it. How can a grape melt? She takes bread and breaks it into many small pieces and then swallows the pieces whole without chewing. The doctor examines her. He takes her blood pressure and says it is very good. He takes her temperature and it is normal. He tests her reflexes with his tiny hammer. He knocks on her knees and her leg swings. He knocks on the back of her ankle and her foot jumps. All her reflexes are fine. Her body is well. Her mind is sick. He listens to her lungs as they expand and contract. He listens to her heart. What does he hear? He looks into her eyes. He shines a beam in with his thin pencil light. She looks into his eyes but I do not think she sees him. He asks her to open her mouth but she does not. I wonder if she can hear. He opens her mouth gently with two wooden tongue depressors, as if using thick chopsticks with two hands. He asks her to say ah but she remains silent. She has not spoken in two weeks.
Our doctor introduces us to the new doctor. Only I say hello. Martha looks at her like she is invisible. The new doctor is a specialist, a psychiatrist. She tells me that Martha has some condition. This condition has a long name. I try to repeat it but can't. The doctor explains that it is like a person in a coma but still awake. I tell her I know Martha has this condition. I tell the psychiatrist it is a very bad condition. I ask her if she knows anyone with this condition. She does not answer me. I never heard of this before, I tell her. I think I sound gruff. I think the new doctor has not had a case like this. I think the new doctor is taking too much time. She talks very slowly. She uses big words I do not really understand. I ask her to use smaller words. She uses the same words but says them even slower. Maybe she thinks they break up into two or three words if she says them slowly.
The new doctor sees that I am getting very upset. She puts her hand on my hand. Her hand is very cold. I think she is afraid because she does not know. I do not know and I am afraid. I guess she thinks she shouldn't be afraid. I tell her it is okay to be afraid in the face of mysteries. She pats my hand and then lets my hand go and takes Martha's hand in her hand. She strokes Martha's hand. She says hello to Martha. She asks Martha how does she feel. Martha does not talk to the new doctor either. She has not spoken in three weeks.
Martha is not in the living room watching the healers on the television and she is not in the kitchen and she is not in her bedroom. Her bed is made. Her dolls are lined across the pillows waiting for her when she returns. She is in the hospital. I come at six o' clock each evening and I ask the nurses the same question. They shake their heads. I realize that it is useless to ask the question. If Martha had said something they would be happy and tell me right away before I ask the question. I see the unsure psychiatrist doctor is talking to the nurse tonight. They nod a lot to each other. I tell her I am lost. She tells me maybe I should take some pills too. I say why. She says I am depressed. I know that. Will the pills make me not depressed? Isn't my depression normal? I do not feel like talking about it. I wonder if Martha is depressed. Suddenly, I do not feel like talking. I shiver. I understand how easy it would be not to speak. Martha has not spoken in two months.
Martha is now in a new hospital. It is a big hospital made of red brick. It is far away from me in the mountains. So I only go on Fridays after work and stay until Sunday. I do not mind going. My house is very empty without Martha. I am lonely without her. I am glad I must work very late now since I have been promoted to assistant manager of the office. They are very kind to me. They tell me I should not work on Fridays but go to the hospital. I thank them but I work.
The big hospital is a nice place. I smell candles everywhere. There is a circular lawn with three statues of the archangels around the edge, and a big fountain in the middle of the lawn. It is late Sunday afternoon and many people are walking toward a geyser in the big fountain. On the top of the fountain the Blessed Virgin is ready to crush the serpent with her foot. I ask Martha if she wants to walk over by the big fountain to see Mary crush the serpent. I am hoping she will laugh and tell me how silly I am, like she used to when we were little, and I said these kinds of things all the time, but she doesn't say anything. I want to tell her I am now an assistant manager. Martha does not know about me any more. Martha has not spoken for several months now.
Each Sunday we walk around the fountain like we are on a merry-go-round. Today I see one of the Sisters walking toward us. She is smiling. She is wearing a brown habit but it is not much of a habit. It has short sleeves and I can see the hair on her arms. Her tiny brown veil is bobby-pinned to her hair and I can see her gray hair streaked with thin white strands. Her hem is just below her knee but I can see her calves. She is wearing a crucifix on a chain around her neck. It should be a cross not a crucifix. I think of telling her this but I do not. It is not like before when we were children. She says the Mass is about to begin. I tell her I have a long way to go. She answers that we all have a long way to go. You must be there this evening, she says. She sounds as if she knows something I don't. She says goodbye to Martha, as if Martha is going away, but Martha does not say goodbye to her. It has been over a year. Martha needs a miracle. I wonder if Martha will ever speak again.
The priest is in the pulpit saying his sermon. He tells of Jesus curing the blind and healing the sick. How odd? People here are never cured. He is giving us false hope. I wish Jesus would come here now. I would walk up and tell him the doctors do not know what is wrong with Martha. The psychiatrists do not know what is wrong with Martha. The good Sisters do not know what is wrong with Martha. I do not know what is wrong with Martha, but He knows. Don't you know everything, Jesus? I will look Jesus in the eye and say all this to him. I am no longer afraid of Jesus. I will ask him when Martha will speak again. I want Jesus to be here to see Martha and have pity like He did long ago. Martha is a mute.
The Chapel of the Resurrection is small but it still smells like a cathedral, damp and still. The priest raises the host high above his head. He stretches his arms upward toward the diffused sunlight beaming through the stained-glass window. The host is transparent. I can see the stained glass window through the host. The altar boy rings the bells vigorously. The priest genuflects. No one is looking at him. Everyone's head is bowed. I am looking up. He genuflects again. I think I hear Martha moan "Oh."
I turn to her. She is looking at the altar. The chalice is now raised. It is golden with a large base studded with shiny stones. I say to Martha, do you still believe? She looks at me this time, not through me, and nods her head. The bells ring for the last time.
Martha has spoken.
Copyright © Thomas Brennan 2003. Title graphic: "Unspoken" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.